One of the most common arguments we see against the use of alternative, herbal, aromatherapy, or other forms of traditional medicine is that the benefit we have from using these forms of treatment are due to the placebo effect (Null & Gale, 2018).
The placebo is commonly known as the sugar pill. Scientists argue that traditional treatments are not effective in it of themselves, but that the cure comes from the patient’s belief in their effectiveness. This they call the placebo effect.
They could claim, for example, that lavender Lavandula angustifolia essential oil does not help a person to relieve insomnia, but the person’s belief that the oil will help them is what enables them to fall asleep.
I believe in the effectiveness of alternative remedies. I have published several posts that share personal stories and studies that show evidence of the effect traditional cures have. In fact, 80% of the world population uses herbal medicine, and often the traditional remedy is more effective than the scientific or allopathic ones (Ji, 2018; Null & Gale, 2018).
Yet, I also think that our beliefs play a large role in our healing process. As such, so what if the placebo has a healing effect? What is wrong with someone believing that something will work, and then that something actually working? Isn’t that part of the healing process? I believe it is. Let me explain why.
What is the Placebo Effect?
The term placebo comes from scientific experimental design, where researchers test the effect of a medication against an inert or sham treatment called a placebo. The placebo is a sugar pill or dummy treatment, and it can be an actual tablet or a similar-feeling, similar-looking treatment that is meant to have no health benefit.
Usually, the experimentation is set up as a double-blind study, where neither the researchers nor the patients know which type of treatment they are getting. In other words, the researchers are “blind” in that they don’t know which patient is getting the real medication and which patient is getting the sugar pill. This reduces the possibility of bias on the researchers’ side. When they don’t know who is getting what, they are able to look at the results objectively and prevent looking more favorably at the results from the patients receiving the real medication.
The patients are also “blind” to which type of treatment they are getting. This is supposed to reduce the bias on their side so that they do not get discouraged from knowing they are not receiving the real medication. They may believe they are, when they are not, or vice versa.
This is where the placebo effect comes in. Often, patients heal or improve, even when taking a sugar pill. The placebo effect results when there are benefits, improvement, or cures that patients experience from taking the dummy medication or receiving the dummy treatment.
How Does the Placebo Effect Work?
Studies have shown that the placebo effect works because it changes the patient’s brain and because the body’s mechanisms respond to the placebo in similar ways as to the actual drug (Mercola, 2018).
When we believe that we are taking a pill, our brain reacts according to how we believe we are going to respond. In other words, our brain and body try as much as possible to meet the expectations we set for the medication (Mercola, 2018). Dummy treatments will work if we believe they will work.
Brain imaging technology has shown that when a patient is taking a placebo, the brain responds according to the expectations set by the patient. This has been the case in studies on pain relief. In patients receiving sugar pills, their brains released natural opioids that mitigated the pain. The same occurred with Parkinson’s patients and people suffering from depression (Mercola, 2018).
Some studies have found that the placebo effect works even when the study isn’t double-blind, and the patient is aware they are taking a placebo. A researcher at Harvard Medical School saw that 65% of patients suffering from IBS or irritable bowel syndrome, who were given placebo pills and were aware they were taking placebos, saw an improvement in symptoms. Similar results happened in a study with people suffering from migraines, where symptoms improved even when they were aware they were receiving placebos (Mercola, 2018).
These results are hard to explain, but researchers believe that the patients who feel positive about the outcome of the treatment will see a benefit, regardless of the type of treatment they receive (Mercola, 2018).
On the other hand, in cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s, where part of brain functioning is impaired, the placebo has no effect (Mercola, 2018). When the patient has no awareness of the treatment they are receiving and thus doesn’t express a belief in healing, the healing doesn’t take place.
What can we make of all this? When we take a placebo, or any type of treatment or remedy, although that treatment can have an effect on the body, our belief in the treatment does as well. Our bodies and our minds play a role in healing. When we believe that something is going to heal us, regardless of what that something is, our body’s own chemicals and healing mechanisms are activated, causing us to heal.
In my view, that indicates not just that placebos are effective, but that the power of our belief can be extraordinary, if only we give it a chance.
Ji, S. (2018). Who are the real “quacks” and “snake oil” salesmen? GreenMedInfo. Retrieved on October 16, 2018 from http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/confirmed-snake-oil-works-better-pharma-pills
Mercola, J. M. (2018). Placebos can work even when you know you’re taking a dummy pill. Mercola- Take Control of Your Health. Retrieved on October 16, 2018 from https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2018/09/13/placebo-effect-works-by-affecting-brain-chemistry-circuitry.aspx
Null, G. & Gale, R. (2018). Chinese botanical medicine: Wikipedia claims it is fake, we are certain it is real. GreenMedInfo. Retrieved on October 16, 2018 from http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/chinese-botanical-medicine-wikipedia-claims-it-fake-we-are-certain-it-real